The other day I was staring out my window, fretting about civilization hurtling towards its violent death. As I ruminated, I saw an alarmingly large silhouette flitting among the blooms of a flowering tree. My mind went to the enormous hornets I saw in rural India, and I wondered what new terror had moved into my region. For several long seconds I watched it, straining to get a better look and wondering what precautions I might need to take if it hung around. Then it landed on a branch in clearer sight. My mind struggled a moment longer to identify the invader, before a sudden perceptual shift allowed me to really see it. It was a hummingbird.
I laughed, both at my own folly and in delight at such a lovely visitor. After a moment, I also realized that the encounter illustrated a much larger dynamic. For a time, however brief, there was a hornet in my experience. The hornet elicited fear and preparations to preserve my safety. But when I recognized my error, the hornet didn’t simply cease to exist. The hornet was retroactively annihilated. It wasn’t just removed from my present experience, it was removed from all of my experience. Of course the memory remained, but its meaning was radically transformed. A whole period of time had become an entirely different thing after the fact. I had become aware that, despite my experience, the hornet had never existed to begin with. It was a hummingbird all along.
Anyone who’s really paying attention would be hard-pressed to deny that things aren’t looking so good for civilization. Between rampant devastation of the global ecosystem and accelerating disintegration of human social systems, some are even declaring that this is the beginning of the end. That civilization is dying. Up until today, I was among them. But then I remembered the hornet.
I’ve seen clearly for some time now that civilization only exists in the human mind. Soil contains no elections. Trees contain no currencies. Wind contains no religions. I’ve often thought about how at its heart civilization is just a story that we keep telling each other and keep inscribing on civilization’s countless artifacts. That civilization is just a collective hallucination, an illusion laboriously cultivated for ten thousand years. But still, when I saw it ending I despaired for all that we were losing.
But today I realized that the despair was part of the illusion. I saw that it was no different than the fear I felt when I thought I was seeing a hornet. In the very same way that there never was a hornet to begin with, there never was any civilization to begin with. It truly is an illusion in the most literal sense. There is nothing to lose in it because it never had anything. This cannot be the end of civilization because civilization never existed.
This is, however, the ending of the story of civilization. The story is becoming increasingly difficult to tell with any conviction. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to produce more artifacts to write it on. And even when we try anyway, the words are starting to catch in our throats and ring hollow in our ears. The story is almost over.
But this can be a cause for gladness! Ten thousand years of madness are beginning to come to an end. The ending may very well be messy and painful in ways that are all too real, but it is an ending of illusion. Whatever comes next will be our first chance in five hundred generations to find a true relationship with the living world and with each other. When the blood is washed away, the tears are dried, and the dust settles, we will all suddenly see that there never was a hornet. It was a hummingbird all along. And we will finally be free.